At her funniest, musician/actress/performance artist Ann Magnuson skewers pop and celebrity culture like nobody else. And there’s a lot of that skewering on her new album, Dream Girl, Magnuson’s third LP following the strangely underrated The Luv Show and Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories. Magnuson will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Dream on.
Magnuson: The Millionaire (a.k.a. Michael Cudahy) is a musician I’ve admired every since hearing his band Combustible Edison. I got to know him when we were part of the L.A. performance, art and music scene in the 1990s (and still are!). I asked him to sound off on dreams, composing for films and providing psychedelic orchestrations on Dream Girl.
Ann: Millie, when did Combustible Edison stop playing and you began composing film music?
Michael: CE went the way of all bands early in 1999, but we had already done some scoring, on the poorly received Four Rooms. I’m told it’s popular in Japan.
You’ve been playing with other bands since CE. Can you name a few?
I organized a short-lived Bollywood outfit, Bombay Rhythm Connection, as well as leading the band at the Velvet Hammer Burlesque, the literal mother of neo-burlesque troupes. The band had a different name at every show, so recounting them would take an entire page. One of ’em was “The Millionaire And His Maharajahs Of Melody.” Also I have done the “Johnny Sideman” trip for the legendary Prince Poppycock.
Have you ever scored a dream sequence in a film?
I just did! The dream sequences were pretty realistic, which I find incredibly disappointing when I actually have a dream. I hate dreaming about getting the mail or going to Albertsons. In this movie, the dreams were little fragments of farm life, so there was nobody running through an empty hallway in a diaphanous gown through a star filter—that’s what all dream sequences were like in the ’70s TV movies I grew up on—much less trying to kill a baby on a city-sized mahogany dirigible. That’s what I dreamed about last night.
Wow, I’d like to see that in a movie! Are there any special challenges to scoring a dream sequence. I assume there are cliches you try to avoid but, on the other hand, some work and need to be employed. After all, Alfred Jarry said, “Cliches are the armature of the absolute”.
Well, the thing I just did was short, so I didn’t have time to work in a whole tone scale. That, played on the vibraphone, is what would accompany the aforementioned ’70s TV movie dream sequence. I used a bunch of feedback and electronic noise so people wouldn’t mistake the dreams for some sort of pointless pastorale. Alfred Jarry often spoke in a deliberately annoying sort of “robot” voice. So I don’t know how much you want to rely on what that guy says.
Ha ha! Well, considering Jarry was doing that way during the turn of the 19th century, I will continue to trust him implicitly. What is your favorite movie scoring ever, of your own or others?
Oh, golly. It would probably be something by Ennio Morricone or Bernard Herrmann. Even scoring a film in the hackiest, most trite way is still a titanic achievement, and those guys managed to serve the dramatic and musical needs perfectly for pretty much every movie they worked on, while at the same time turning in innovative and distinctive work. Possibly that crane shot in Once Upon A Time In The West where Claudia Cardinale walks in to town to meet her fate, and Morricone’s score puts it all into heart-stoppingly operatic perspective. That scene seriously makes me weepy.
That moment truly is monumental! Any favorite dream sequences?
Dream sequences in movies are always disappointingly lame, because a movie can’t communicate stuff like looking at your high school math teacher but knowing he’s actually your mom (in the dream).
I know! Few get it, though Tarkovsky comes close. You have a vast record collection and encyclopedic knowledge of music and film. Can you name a few recordings that you think catapult one into a dream state without the need of drugs or R.E.M. sleep? And you don’t have to say Dream Girl, ha ha!
From beginning to end, Black Devil Doll From Hell taps into a strange associative dream-continuum that is unobtainable by conventional means. Charles N. Turner is an accidental oneirophant. Also, the entire oeuvre of pop-music-performed-on-pipe-organ recordings (Ethel Ennis, George Wright, Korla Pandit) exudes an ineffable unearthliness that knows you are trying to open the dream bug sand scroll in the intercontinental subway where they keep all those drawers that have your important life moments recorded in them. What?
That last sentence totally sucked me back into my dream from last night, where Bongwater was going to reunite but the girls from Pulsallama talked me out of it! You created some splendid orchestrations for some of the tracks on Dream Girl. Any special challenges? You can be honest!
I just kept repeating, “Don’t fuck this up,” to myself. I think it worked!
It worked beautifully! Oh, one last thing, I only recently found out you wrote the song “Annie’s Gone” for Redd Kross that I was in the video for. You know, that twisted Sid ‘N’ Marty Kroft pop confection that Rocky Schenck directed? How did that come about, you playing Boyce & Hart to their Monkees?
We were on the same record label, Big Time Records; Redd Kross were getting ready to record and they didn’t have quite enough material, so the label asked me to write some songs for Redd Kross. I loved them so was excited to do it, and I also loved the idea of that behind-the-scenes-pop-songcraft trip. The Annie in the song is the Cherie Currie character from the movie Foxes.
That movie is fantastic! And soooooo Redd Kross!
The character in the movie actually dies—hence, you know, being “gone.” At the end of the movie, the foxes are all hanging out in the cemetery, and they are talking about how Annie wanted to have a fruit tree planted on her when she died so her friends could be eating the fruit and they would say, “Annie’s tasting pretty good today,” which I think was actually one of the lines in the song. Jeff and Steve added/changed some lyrics, though, so I don’t really remember all of them! And I haven’t seen that movie in probably 25 years. The song came out on their major label debut Third Eye; I was already a big fan of yours, so when I saw you were in it, I was thrilled! It ended up taking almost 10 years before I finally met you, though. I didn’t realize until relatively recently that the video was directed by our mutual friend, the great Rocky Schenck, who also later directed a video for Combustible Edison. And now I live here, and all these people are my pals. Who knew!
It’s a small world after all!